ALBANY, NY (WSKG) – A New York State Senate hearing scheduled to review the troubled state’s ethics commission was postponed Monday over fears it was in violation of the law on open meetings because too many Senators were attending Zoom instead of showing up in person.
The hearing was to feature senators grilling the chairman of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, a panel that critics say is too influenced by Governor Andrew Cuomo. But after an hour of delay, the chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, Alessandra Biaggi, postponed it.
“A concern has been brought to our attention,” Biaggi said. “To find out whether or not the open assembly law applies to hearings.” “
The Senate is one of many government agencies struggling to cope with changing rules, now that the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be on the wane.
At the height of the pandemic, emergency rules declared by Cuomo and special rules passed by the Legislature allowed most lawmakers to participate remotely during the legislative session and in committee meetings and public hearings.
But now that the state of emergency has ended, the Open State Meetings Act applies again. The law states that if a public meeting is organized by videoconference, the public must be able to attend in person to listen to and observe the proceedings at any site where a government official participates. This rule cannot be followed when most Senators log in from their homes.
Biaggi, a Democrat, said she believed the public hearing fell into a gray area of the rules, but did not want to taint the proceedings by suggesting she had done something wrong.
“Because there is no doubt that we will not even appear to be violating the open meeting law, we are postponing it until we have clarification on this matter,” Biaggi said.
The committee’s rank Republican, Senator Anthony Palumbo, was one of two committee senators who attended in person. He waited an hour in the courtroom before being informed of the cancellation.
He said he believed the hearing, as structured, would not have violated the open meeting law. He added that this is another black mark on the attempt by majority party Democrats to try to resolve ongoing ethics issues in state government.
“We can’t even organize the public hearing properly,” Palumbo said. “It’s embarassing.”
Palumbo, from eastern Long Island, has one of the longest trips to Albany. He said other Republican senators on the committee would have come in person if they had been told this was the rule.
Palumbo said he intends to question Sanford Berland, the recently appointed executive director of JCOPE, about what Palumbo called the lack of transparency. He said Robert Ortt, the leader of the Senate Minority Republicans, wrote letters to JCOPE requesting an investigation into allegations that Cuomo improperly offered priority coronavirus testing to his friends and family, and had used staff members to help him write and edit a brief, far received no response.
The State Senate was not the only government entity that potentially operated on obscure legal ground.
The state’s division commission, which will draw new lines for congressional, senate and assembly districts based on 2020 census data, said on Monday it would hold virtually nine public hearings, via Zoom, to involve people from across the state.
Vice President Jack Martins said members viewed the hearings as a “listening tour” to gather public comment before making decisions and would not take any official action, so they believe the Open Meetings Act does not apply to them.
He said that because people can participate in hearings from their homes, the format will increase public access and participation.
“I see this as a huge positive,” Martins said. “To do the kind of public awareness that we’re supposed to do. I certainly wouldn’t agree that we are doing something …
Remote-only redistribution hearings are proceeding as scheduled, starting July 20.
Biaggi said the hearing issues could in the long run be a positive development and cause the state to change its rules to virtually host more events and make it easier for the public to witness them.